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Fantasy Football 2019: Running Back Position Primer

Six crucial questions to consider before drafting a fantasy running back.

Since fantasy football’s early days, the do-it-all running back has captured our imaginations. Players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes produced such gaudy statistics in their heydays that they were responsible in large part for countless championships, gaining admirers far beyond San Diego and Kansas City.

Although a majority of NFL coaches have moved in recent years toward committee backfields, there remains a handful of elite runners who can truly do it all, making it difficult for their coaches to take them off the field. These primo running backs keep us collectively coming back for more; we continue to draft running backs early and often in the hope that we will land an elite, workhorse back.

That hope is rooted in logic, since the top echelon of backs continues to be one of the primary engines powering championship fantasy teams.

In fact, if we exclude quarterbacks for a moment, the five top scorers in PPR formats last season were all running backs. Interestingly, the next seven top scorers were all wide receivers.

So if you pick the right running back early, it’s a huge advantage and sets you up for success in your leagues.

However, if you pick a running back early and miss, it is a difficult mistake to overcome.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey were all selected among the top 12 running backs in drafts last year, all in the first and second rounds. Those five picks were home runs in every sense, and provided fantasy owners with a leg up on the competition.

However, also among the top 12 running backs selected were David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Devonta Freeman. Those five picks were more costly than late-round busts, and fantasy owners found it hard to recover.

This potential for a high return with a simultaneously high bust rate makes the running back position particularly challenging. Yet despite the proverbial landmines, rostering running backs who average 20 touches per game or more is the most straightforward path to fantasy dominance. Therefore, finding value at the running back position must remain a primary focus for fantasy players. 

Let’s turn our attention to six burning questions that will help define the running back landscape for the 2019 season.

Will Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon play full seasons?

Both Elliott and Gordon are workhorse backs, and see a heavy workload both running the ball and as receivers out of the backfield. Last season Elliott averaged more than 25 touches per game and Gordon averaged 18.75 touches per game, putting both in that group of elite runners discussed above. 

Until very recently, both Elliott and Gordon were going in the first round of virtually every fantasy draft. Elliott remains there, but Gordon has fallen to the second or third round over the past couple weeks.

The reason for Gordon’s fall is his announcement that he wants a new contract prior to the season or he wants to be traded. He also has not reported to training camp yet. Elliott has not reported to camp either, and is also seeking a new contract.

Whether either player holds out into the season and misses games will be extremely relevant to how 2019 fantasy leagues turn out.

Gordon has seemed more likely to hold out into the season, since he already has four accrued seasons, which is a prerequisite for a player to become a free agent. This means he could theoretically hold out until Week 10 and then return, and he would still get credit for playing this season and qualify for free agency next season. If he pursued this course, the Chargers would either have to slap him with the franchise tag next offseason, pay him or let him walk.

Elliott, on the other hand, only has three accrued seasons. This means a holdout lasting past August 6 causes him to forfeit an accrued season, preventing him from becoming a free agent even after the 2020 season. Most assumed that Elliott would report by the 6th to keep his options open, but with his holdout still going strong, apparently he is betting on the Cowboys giving him the new contract he wants long before 2020.

Either way, holdouts are not the best way to begin a season, so drafting either player comes with a high level of risk.

How many touches will Todd Gurley get, and will his knee hold up?

Todd Gurley was remarkable again last season, finishing with 374 PPR points, behind only McCaffrey and Mahomes. He did that in only 14 games, and that came on the heels of his No. 1 finish in 2017, when he scored him 387 PPR points. He has been a fantasy football stud in every sense.

However, Gurley struggled in the playoffs last year, losing touches to C.J. Anderson and looking rather pedestrian when he did touch the ball. We now know that was because of an arthritic knee condition, stemming from his ACL tear in college. The condition is degenerative and can only be managed, not completely fixed.

That news is troubling, and Gurley’s trainer has confirmed the best way to manage the knee is to keep Gurley’s weight down and to limit as much wear and tear as possible. The Rams front office seemed to concur with this sentiment when they drafted speedster Darrell Henderson in the third round.

Gurley will certainly remain the starter, but it seems the Rams now recognize that giving him 300-plus touches is not the best course, particularly when they have so much money invested in him. How exactly they manage his carries, and how they work Henderson and Malcolm Brown into the rotation, will be another crucial factor in how the 2019 season plays out.

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Will the shift toward committee backfields continue, or will the pendulum swing back in the other direction?

After many years of more and more teams opting to have an early-down specialist and a third-down specialist, there may be signs that the pendulum is swinging back toward the workhorse back.

Increasingly offenses in today’s NFL are focused on efficiency. Coaches want to make the decisions that are the most intelligent from an analytical perspective, calling plays that are most likely to be successful in a given situation. And as teams get more data from sites like Football Outsiders and Sharp Football Stats, and from their own analytics departments, it appears that the workhorse back might be more efficient after all.

Of the 17 backs who finished with the highest DVOA (a Football Outsiders stat that denotes value, per play, over an average running back in the same situation), 10 can be called three-down backs. Those 10 included Christian McCaffrey, who played over 90% of the offensive snaps for the Panthers, and also Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Melvin Gordon.

Since so many of the most efficient backs are those who consistently play all three downs, there is a strong argument to be made for teams finding and using a workhorse back—or at least using multiple backs who can play every down.

Andy Reid has seemed to long believe in using his backs on all three downs, in order to keep the defense from knowing what the play call is. If a back is on the field for all three downs, the defense gets no tip about what the play is going to be. On the other hand, when players like Duke Johnson and Theo Riddick are on the field, defenses are keyed to the pass, making those plays less efficient.

Whether this data will lead more teams to utilize three-down backs is still undetermined, but there are signs the pendulum has started to go in the other direction.

Can David Johnson return to form as one of the top backs in the league within Kingsbury’s new offensive scheme?

So much is unknown about this year’s Cardinals. They have a new head coach in Kliff Kingsbury, who has never coached in the NFL and will bring some version of his Air Raid offense to the Cardinals this year. They have a new quarterback in rookie Kyler Murray, whose ceiling at the NFL level is far from certain. It is unknown who will be starting at all of the wide receiver spots, since they have several rookies and young players on the roster to go along with Larry Fitzgerald.

Along with all of that, David Johnson adds another unknown element. Johnson struggled last season under former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, whose offense was anything but dynamic. Johnson averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per reception. In 2016, his last full season prior to last season, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 11 yards per reception—and also scored 20 touchdowns.

Can Johnson return to those lofty heights under Kingsbury? On the positive side of the ledger, Kingsbury plans a fast tempo for his offense, and there has been talk about the offense averaging more than 80 plays per game (which would break the NFL record). If they even come close to that number, Johnson would certainly benefit, since he is one of the few true three-down backs in the league. Kingsbury’s offense has historically utilized a lot of shotgun, which Johnson has stated is a positive, since he excelled in the shotgun in college.

How it will play out is truly unknowable at this point, making Johnson a fantasy pick with both lots of risk and lots of upside.

Can Damien Williams buck the trend and break out as an elite running back at the age of 27?

Running backs do not break out at the age of 27. In fact, as is evident with the Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon holdouts, teams are increasingly using their young backs heavily and then refusing to extend them with large contracts. The reason is because playing the position is extremely taxing physically, so backs are often very productive early in their careers but then quickly begin declining as they age.

Most elite backs have shown they are elite by the time they hit 20 years old. That is true of all of the elite backs in the league today, including the consensus top-four backs: Barkley, McCaffrey, Kamara and Elliott.

Yet Damien Williams certainly seems on the verge of a breakout campaign. He took over the starting job from Kareem Hunt after the Chiefs released Hunt, and he excelled. In the fantasy playoffs (weeks 14-16), Williams scored 19, 30, and 27 PPR points. Then in the playoffs he continued that torrid pace, scoring 32 points against both the Colts and the Patriots.

It has often been said that breakouts come when talent and opportunity meet. Most agree that Williams has the opportunity; he is slated to play all three downs on the most explosive offense in the NFL. However, many doubt his talent. He was signed by the Miami Dolphins after going undrafted, and mainly served as their third-down back in his four seasons there.

However, he has ideal size for the position, is fast for his size and is an excellent receiver. He showed last season that he also has good vision and can run between the tackles.

In the end, the primary reason to believe in Williams is not because of his physical traits but because of his role in a historic offense. Further, Andy Reid’s backs always produce due to the nature of his offensive scheme and because of the creative ways he designs plays.

If there is ever going to be a 27-year-old breakout running back, it’s going to be Damien Williams.

What running backs in the middle-to-late rounds should be targets in fantasy drafts?

This final question might be the one fantasy football players care most about. We have already discussed how even running backs drafted early have a high bust rate, so it is crucial to find backs with potential to be league winners who can be drafted with a mid- to late-round pick.

Here are five backs being drafted in the sixth round or later who are worthy of being targeted:

• Sony Michel, Patriots: He has been falling due to landing on the PUP list to begin the season, but he showed down the stretch last season that he has RB1 potential. Although the Patriots employ James White as their pass-catching back, any offense that is as efficient as the Patriots will provide plenty of chances for their early-down back to produce and score. Due to his balky knee he is a risky selection, but one that could pay off.
• Derrius Guice, Redskins: Another risky selection, Guice has the tools to be a top-12 back in the league. Since he is being drafted in the seventh or eighth rounds of drafts, he certainly offers league-winning potential. Guice is powerful, fast, and explosive, and regularly ripped off long runs at LSU that not many backs are capable of. Although he did not catch the ball much in college, he has apparently shown soft hands in practice. The Redskins don’t seem likely to win many games, but if Guice is able to figure out protections and play all three downs, he could produce anyway.
• Peyton Barber, Buccaneers: Barber was not especially dynamic last year, but he played with intelligence and was reliable. In the end, coaches typically prefer to stick with the player who will make the right play and will sacrifice some big-play potential if necessary. This is why Barber is as likely to be a useful back this year as Ronald Jones. Jones struggled with the mental side of the game last season, missing running lanes and assignments, but Barber was solid and efficient. If that keeps him on the field as the starter, he will provide a very nice return on his ninth or tenth round ADP.
• Justice Hill, Ravens: A rookie from Oklahoma State, Hill is being drafted in the double-digit rounds and could return excellent value. He is a speedster, and ran a 4.4-flat at the combine. He should be an excellent complement to newly signed Mark Ingram for the Ravens rushing attack. If he beats out Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon for playing time, he could provide fantastic value.
• Darwin Thompson, Chiefs: Thompson is intriguing. He literally worked his way to the NFL, having been passed over by Division-1 colleges due to his small stature. He went to junior college and excelled, then transferred to Utah State and excelled again. Even though he is small at 5'8", he is powerfully built. He weighs 200 pounds and is extremely muscular, and he put that muscle to use on tape, regularly breaking tackles and displaying excellent contact balance. That is exactly the type of runner Chiefs head coach Andy Reid prefers, which could earn him carries from Week 1. If Damien Williams struggles or gets injured, Thompson could certainly be the best value of fantasy drafts this season.